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Scientists Propose a New Name for Nature in the Time of COVID-19: The ‘Anthropause’

Human travel came to a halt during COVID-19, and scientists argue that this worldwide ‘pause’ presents a rare opportunity to study our impact on animals

A jackal in Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

As the world slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed that—anecdotally, at least—animal took notice. Pumas crept into an unusually quiet Santiago, Chile; jackals in Tel Aviv, Israel roamed freely in parks.

The profound change in human activity occasioned by the pandemic might be having a likewise profound effect on animals around the world, researchers say. Recently, a team of scientists coined a name to describe this phenomenon: the “anthropause.”

“We noticed that people started referring to the lockdown period as the ‘Great Pause,’ but felt that a more precise term would be helpful,” the authors write in the article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution article last week. “We propose ‘anthropause’ to refer specifically to a considerable global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel.”

The study authors argue that this moment presents a unique opportunity to study global patterns in animal behavior. “There is an amazing research opportunity, which has come about through really tragic circumstances,” lead author Christian Rutz, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews, tells Matt Simon of Wired magazine. “And we acknowledge that in the article. But it’s one which we as a scientific community really can’t afford to miss. It’s an opportunity to find more about how humans and wildlife interact on this planet.”

The researchers identified a number of “urgent steps” that they say scientists should take, including pooling global-scale research on the activity of animals during this period and making it widely accessible, reports Victoria Gill for BBC News. For instance, the researchers cite the recently formed “COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative,” a global project to track animal’s movements, behavior and stress levels with small electronic trackers called “bio-loggers.”

Researchers cite anecdotal evidence that some species have been enjoying the extra space with more humans stuck at home. However, the pandemic is also having adverse effects on many species, especially those that rely on human protection. Some areas have noted increases in poaching, Gill reports for BBC News. Many conservation efforts, such as a project to protect endangered birds in the southern Atlantic Ocean, have also been put on hold due to social distancing measures, according to Wired.

As Natasha Daly reported for National Geographic in March, misinformation about spectacular encounters with wildlife proliferated in the first months of lockdown—such as a viral video of “Venetian” dolphins swimming in clear blue water that turned out to be from Sardinia. (A tongue-in-cheek meme circulated on social media in response to the earnest, viral spread of false accounts, with the phrase: “Nature is healing, we are the virus.”)

The study authors write that it will be important to distinguish these kinds of anecdotal accounts from verifiable trends in wildlife populations during the pandemic.

“At present, it is impossible to say which observations have been hyped by social media, and which expert predictions about global animal responses will hold true,” the authors write in the study. “But what is clear is that humans and wildlife have become more interdependent than ever before, and that now is the time to study this complex relationship. A quantitative scientific investigation is urgently needed.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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